Garrick sat with his back against a tree and watched the others settle down to rest. He’d agreed to take watch duty while they rested in a small stand of trees to gather their strength for the final stretch of their journey. As his companions relaxed on the hilltop, Garrick studied the hazy peaks of the Turrak Mountains towering in the distance. Normally he would be itching to reach home, but today he was reluctant to return and relinquish Tei’s care. He sighed to himself, knowing he should be keeping watch, but it was hard to focus on anything other than Tei and the imminence of their parting.
Garrick shifted his position and lounged back onto his elbows to watch Tei as she dozed in the sunshine. He stole a guilty glance at Rike, but his friend was lying with his eyes closed, either meditating or sleeping.
The low sun washed over him; he could almost forget it was winter, and that the snow would soon see them sheltering in the mountain caves. A chill breeze picked up, stirring him from his thoughts. He glanced back at the sky and saw darkness would soon draw in. It was time to get on their way, but a drowsy malaise had stolen over his limbs. His eyes grew heavy and he fought back the tide of sleep. Warning bells sounded in his head, but his body was too lethargic to respond. Then, from the corner of his eye, Garrick spotted a shape.
Half-blinded by the waning sun, he took a moment to realise an enemy rider was racing up the hill towards them. Looking around, Garrick saw more Masked Riders were silently storming the hill, encircling them.
His torpor vanished. ‘Weapons! We’re under attack.’ Garrick leapt up, drawing his sword.
Rike rolled to his feet with both blades drawn, but Tei was still sitting, wrestling to free her sword from its scabbard.
‘The sword’s stuck.’
‘Run!’ Garrick shouted as a horseman crested the hill behind her.
Garrick charged towards Tei, but a Masked Rider appeared to his left and intercepted him. Fending off a slash aimed at his head, Garrick ducked in and plunged his knife into the rider’s unprotected belly.
The man fell from the saddle, ripping the knife from Garrick’s hand, but he was already turning on his heel, searching for his friends.
Rike was struggling to fend off two riders, while Tei stood apart from them. She’d unbuckled her sword belt and held the blade awkwardly in front of her with the weapon still trapped in its scabbard. The enemy rider was almost upon her.
Garrick tried to run but his legs were leaden and his muscles paralysed.
‘Rike,’ he shouted, struggling to form the word.
‘He’s trying to swamp you with magic, fight it.’
Garrick flung his mind and body against the barrier, feeling it give a little to his challenge.
The rider had already drawn level with Tei. She swiped wildly with her useless sword, but the horseman batted aside the weapon and knocked it from her hands. As Tei stumbled, the rider bent low and swept her up onto his horse.
She sprawled across the saddle, kicking and screaming, until the masked man laid his hand on her head and she went limp.
Garrick battled free of the spell and raised his sword as he charged. The mystic rider tugged on the reins and with a show of flailing hooves, he turned the horse and bolted down the hill.
‘Bastard!’ Garrick roared as he gave chase. More Masked Riders topped the rise to engulf him. He tried to slip past the flashing blades and keep Tei in sight, but it was impossible to see through the wall of horses.
Bellowing in rage, he grabbed the reins of the nearest horse and ran the rider through with his sword. Toppling the dead man from the saddle, Garrick mounted the beast and saw the kidnapper speeding towards the trees below.
He glanced back at Rike, seeing his friend battled failing odds.
Save Tei… Rike’s voice echoed in his head.
With a slash of his blade, Garrick dispatched the rider in his path and broke free from the enemy ranks. He stuck his heels into the beast’s flanks and galloped after Tei. The other riders were close behind him, but he ignored them as he propelled his horse down the hill.
Tei and her captor had almost reached the forest when the rider suddenly yanked back on the reins and attempted to change his course.
Seconds later, a patrol from Turrak charged out of the trees towards them. An arrow came from somewhere in the ranks and caught the kidnapper high in the chest. The horse reared, toppling its dead rider who dislodged Tei from the saddle as he fell.
She lay motionless on the ground while the panicked horse reared above her. Its hooves crashed down inches from her body before the spooked beast fled.
Garrick recognised Hafender at the head of the group of mystics and protectors. He heard the battle cries of the Masked Riders behind him and the answering call from his own people.
Hafender acknowledged Garrick as he passed by, leading his group of exiles into battle.
Garrick heard the sounds of swords clashing and men dying as he dropped from the saddle and ran to Tei. With shaking fingers, he checked her neck for a pulse. Her heartbeat was strong and she was breathing normally, but a cut on her head seeped blood.
‘Tei, can you hear me?’
A shadow fell across him and he reached for his sword.
‘It’s me.’ Rike crouched down beside them.
‘Thank Kalaya, I thought you were dead.’
‘The enemy found I’m not so easy to kill, even without my protector.’ Despite his words, Rike’s blood-splattered face was serious. ‘I failed you and Tei. I didn’t notice the spells he was working over us.’
‘We both failed,’ Garrick said, ‘and now she won’t wake up.’
Rike checked Tei’s pulse and inspected her pupils before he examined the cut on her forehead.
‘She knocked her head when she fell from the horse, but I think that bastard mystic did something to her.’
Rike nodded and mumbled to himself as he closed his eyes. Garrick knew he had a long wait for answers, so he grabbed his sword and turned back to survey the battle. A few Masked Riders remained, but they were outnumbered and attempting to flee. Before he could re-join the fight, Hafender gave the signal and the exiles fell back, allowing the enemy a safe retreat. Anger soared through Garrick’s veins as he watched the cowards turn tail, knowing they would return another day to kill more of his friends.
He rounded up two horses that were attempting to crop the grass on the edge of the forest and tethered them close to where Tei lay.
His friend had wiped away the blood from her forehead, revealing a shallow split in the skin.
‘What’s wrong with her?’ Garrick asked as he paced around them.
Rike didn’t respond at first, but when he looked up, there was concern in his eyes. ‘I can’t tell what damage the fall did, she was already under a spell when it happened. I’ve tried to remove it, but it’s beyond my power.’
‘What about the others?’ Garrick indicated the mystics riding down the hill towards them.
‘Even Hafender isn’t skilled enough to tackle this. Tei’s only hope is to get to the Elders in Turrak.’
Garrick retrieved the two tethered horses and checked them over for wounds. Both mounts looked healthy and tugged at the reins, eager to be on the move. He chose the brawnier horse for himself and vaulted into the saddle as the patrol drew level with them.
Captain Hafender dismounted and clapped Rike on the back. ‘You two had your hands full.’
‘The odds weren’t in our favour, but that’s never bothered us before,’ Rike said.
‘Don’t I know it.’ Hafender grinned. ‘You’re lucky we were patrolling the area, though I don’t understand why they would chance an attack so close to Turrak.’
‘They won’t make that mistake again,’ Garrick said.
The remainder of the group returned, dragging the enemy dead down the hill behind them.
‘Who’s the girl?’ Hafender asked as he glanced down at Tei.
‘She’s a young mystic from Seatown.’ Rike swooped Tei up in his arms. ‘She’s been injured; we need to get her to the Elders.’
Garrick reached down to take Tei. With Rike’s help, he managed to prop her in the saddle in front of him. She slumped against his chest and he put an arm around her shoulders to hold her steady. Gripping the reins with his free hand, he glanced up and noticed Hafender regard Tei with a calculating stare.
‘You go ahead, we’ll sort out this mess for you. We can talk later over a drink,’ Hafender said.
As Rike mounted his horse, Garrick kicked his steed into a gallop and veered around the forest, heading for the wide-open plain that preceded the mountains.
The light was fading, but the horses’ powerful strides ate away the remaining miles. When they neared the pass into Turrak, Garrick slowed and allowed Rike to draw ahead of him.
His friend stopped a short distance into the pass and waved to the hidden bowmen in the rocks. ‘We seek urgent passage for this young mystic. She needs the Elders’ help.’ Rike’s voice echoed around them before fading into ominous silence.
Garrick shivered as the cold mountain air descended and crept across his flesh, reminding him in a few weeks the snow would block the pass until the spring thaw.
‘The Elders have been informed of your arrival. They will receive you in the valley meeting hall.’ A disembodied voice echoed down to them.
Garrick scanned the rocks above, but the speaker and his bowmen remained hidden. He’d always admired the discipline of the men who spent their days and nights concealed in the unforgiving conditions of Turrak’s pass and remembered his short time training with them when he first arrived at the mountains.
The night drew in as they traversed the pass. Darkness obscured the rocky ground, already made treacherous in the damp, icy air. The horses needed coaxing forward as the weak moonlight failed to penetrate the shadows.
Garrick’s heart lurched as his mount’s foot slipped and he had to nudge the horse with his knees to continue. Their pace had slowed to a crawl when the moon disappeared behind clouds and left them in complete darkness.
‘We’d better stop,’ Rike called back to him.
Garrick pulled gently on the reins. ‘We may as well be on foot.’
He heard Rike dismount and, as the moonlight reappeared from behind a cloud, found his friend already stood beside him.
Garrick lowered Tei into Rike’s arms, and then jumped down. ‘Here, let me take her.’
‘Will hold up fine.’ Garrick flexed the injured arm, working out the tension from the ride and the growing stiffness caused by the cold.
He took Tei’s limp body from Rike and cradled her in his arms as he looked down at her pale face. Then he carefully lifted her over his uninjured shoulder, gritting his teeth against the flare of pain in his torn muscles.
He trailed behind Rike as his friend led the nervous horses along the pass and deeper into Turrak. The cold drove into Garrick’s bones and made his breath puff out in heavy clouds of vapour.
Two bobbing lights appeared ahead of them. At first, Garrick thought his eyes were playing tricks, but he realised it was light bearers from the valley, their torches welcome against the blackness of the night.
Garrick watched the light cast a warm glow against the towering walls of the pass. ‘Funny how such a simple thing can lift the spirits,’ he said and watched, mesmerised by the approaching beacons.
‘Our saviours,’ Rike said to the two light bearers as they drew closer. ‘We need to hurry, this girl needs urgent attention.’
‘Shall I take her for you?’ the leader asked.
‘I can manage.’ Garrick instinctively tightened his hold on Tei.
The light bearer nodded and then signalled to his young companion who produced a thick blanket from his pack and draped it across Tei.
Garrick grunted his thanks to the bleary-eyed youth. He guessed that, like himself, the lad was not of the magical bloodline and knew too well the months of tests he faced as the Elders judged where his talents could best serve the island.
‘Grin and bear it, lad. The training doesn’t last forever,’ Garrick said.
‘Feels like it already has.’ The boy handed his torch to Rike in exchange for the horses’ reins.
The going was twice as fast with light to guide them. They followed a few steps behind their escorts who were as surefooted and nimble as mountain goats across the rocky path.
Garrick could hear the big man lecturing his student. Despite the lad’s obvious agility, he doubted the uninterested youth was destined to work the pass.
‘Do you think anyone suspects about Tei?’ Garrick asked.
‘If they did, we’d be blinded by the light of a thousand torches. Let’s hold our tongues for a few more hours and see what the Elders have to say.’